Wednesday, November 14, 2018

TRAVEL TIPS: Paying for Your Trip



While there are a select few people who get their travel paid for them, I'm not one of them (but I'm willing to change that - Ed) and chances are neither are you. So where do we come up with the money to travel with?

First, you need to know how much your trip will cost. There are two approaches you can take with this. We use both, depending on how much we want to go to a particular location or how much we want to spend on a trip.

If you know where you want to go, you need to know how much it will cost to go there. You can research how much your destination will cost using travel sites like Hotels.com, Kayak, and Expedia where you can get a pretty good ballpark estimation of how much it will cost for your airfare and lodging. You can also look up rental car rates there too, if needed.

Be sure to include an estimate of how much food will cost and how much your hotel will feed you, if at all. If you're driving, figure out your gas mileage and calculate that too.



Once you have that amount, add at least 10% to that to cover any incidentals along the way, total it all up and that's how much you'll need to save.

Figure out when you want to go, how many weeks away from now it is, and divide that number by the cost of the trip. That's how much you'll need to sock away each week. Do that, and you'll have enough to go when the time comes.

The other way to figure out how much it will cost is to set aside a certain amount each week, say $50 and then decide when you want to go, let's say 6 months from now. 26 weeks of $50 will get you $1,300. 



When the time gets near, find out where you can go for that amount and plan your trip to somewhere you can afford (don't think that amount is too little either...we did a week in the Dominican, all-inclusive including air, for less than $1,200 per person).

Some people will say they don't have the discipline to put aside that set amount of money each week. That's sad...you need some discipline to travel successfully anyway so why not start with the money? If you don't think there's any money to save, try skipping one Starbucks latte and an extra value meal each week...there's $10 right there and it's going to be healthier too.

OK, let's think of some other strategies...

Does your employer use Direct Deposit? Many employers that use Direct Deposit allow you to not only automatically deposit the money to your bank account, but also a few other accounts as well. For example, if you work for the U.S. Government, you can set up your deposit to be split up to as many as three accounts so let's say 80% can go into your main checking account, 10% into a household expense account, and another 10% into a vacation account.

Now you're saving up your vacation money without even thinking about it.

If you can't take advantage of this, talk to your bank or credit union. Many will allow automatic transfers into separate savings accounts that can be used the same way.

However you pay for your vacation, I strongly urge you not to charge it.  Save up for it, don't end up paying for it long after it's over.

Other ways to help pay for travel, or at least soak up some of the costs is to use reward credit/debit cards and to join loyalty programs. 

Travel rewards cards earn points for each dollar spent that can be cashed in for things like airfare and hotels. Be sure to read the fine print, however, because many of these cards charge a lot of fees for it. Here are some recommended cards:  http://www.consumerismcommentary.com/the-best-travel-rewards-credit-cards/

We don't travel by air a whole lot, so we prefer a cash back card that pays you a certain percentage rebate for each use. Our favorite is the Costco Citi Visa card that racks up several hundred dollars a year for use in everyday use including 4% for gas, 3% for travel and restaurants, 2% for purchases at Costco, and 1% for everything else (our cash back paid for our Bahamas cruise this year).  Some other recommended rewards cards are listed here: http://www.businessinsider.com/the-5-best-rewards-credit-cards-2011-2


Hotel loyalty programs are also good to earn free room stays. Find a chain you like, join the club, and start racking up the points. We use Hyatt, Marriott, Hilton, and...to a lesser extent...Choice Hotels.  By joining the loyalty program, which is completely free, we not only get points for free stays (and get at least a free night in a hotel each year), we also get some added perks at the hotel just by being a member such as upgraded rooms or late check-outs.

These are all tips to help you accumulate the money you need to afford a vacation.  It's actually not too hard to do. Figure a price, save an amount each week till you reach it, use rewards and loyalty programs to help you accumulate free travel and lodging, and off you go.

-Darryl
Copyright 2012 - Darryl Musick (updated 2017)
All Rights Reserved
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Monday, November 12, 2018

A Trio of Quick Fall Trips: Number 3 - Bringing the Extended Family Along for Gold and Wine Touring-Part 2


A fitful night of sleep at the Doubletree Suites in Rancho Cordova leads to an early wakeup the next morning. After a breakfast of waffles, eggs, and bacon at Sunrise Waffle Shop near the hotel, we're on the road heading east on Highway 50.

Before Placerville, our GPS tells us to exit and head northward into the hills. Today, we're taking the family to Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma. The three of us have been there many times but it will be a first for Letty's mom and her brother.


We arrive and there are many people. It's the second weekend of October and the new thing we'll learn today is that this weekend is the Gold Rush Live re-enactment. That means many people in period dress set up in tents recreating the Gold Rush days with blacksmiths, general stores, bakeries, and even and honest-to-God saloon. The lady up above had her goats Rascal and Ranger there, too.

All the participants are required to live at the site and only use period correct items. Some are even deep into the character, such as the lady who told my wife she was waiting for her husband to bring her some more vegetables before she could sell what she had to my wife.

"Oh, when's he coming back?" my wife asked.

"It depends, he went to Sacramento. If he has a horse, two days. If he took the wagon, maybe three. Hopefully, he won't find misfortune along the way that would delay him more..."


Others, not quite so much as my wife inquired of a lady in the knitting tent, "I love that shawl, could you tell me how you did the pattern?"

"You can download it on Ravelry.com," was the reply.

Before we get over to the encampment, I need to show my mother-in-law and brother-in-law the most important historic spot in their adopted state. Just a bit left of the recreation of the old sawmill that John Sutter owned is a spot...now protected by a wall and no trespassing signs...that mill foreman John Marshal was inspecting after blasting the mill's tailrace to unclog it.


Here is where he bent over, saw a glimmering rock in the water, and found the first nugget that launched California's great Gold Rush.

Suitably impressed, we then head over to the re-enactment chatting with the participants and browsing the wares. We end up in the saloon tent ("we're only selling sasaparilla today because of all the school children here on field trips, tomorrow we'll have beer and wine") where an urchin, dressed in period garb, walks in.

"What'll you have, mister?" the bartender asks.

"How much is a sasparilla?" he asks back.

"Two fifty."

"I have two dollars."

He's cute enough that Amaury and I split the bill and buy him a drink.


It's time to head back down the hill but not before we stop off at the big house. Folsom Prison is hidden behind the houses of the City of Folsom. It's a popular stop for us to check out the tiny prison just inside the wall.


I show Amaury the old nooses, the crafts made by prisoners, and the wall of shanks that were confiscated by prisoners. There's also a display of contraband that was caught by prisoners keestering it in.

Google it, I'm not going to explain it here.


We finish off the day with way more deep dish pizza than we can eat at Chicago Fire in Old Folsom before retiring back to the hotel.

Tomorrow, we'll delve deeper into the Motherlode.

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 11, 2018

THE COCKTAIL HOUR: Paso Robles Wine Tasting


We've done this before but time to hit a couple of new places.


Watch the Video!

While California wine tasting used to be a fun, cheap way to pass some time on vacation, wineries have caught on and have made this a profit center. Cheap tasting is getting hard to find. Free tasting is on the endangered list and in extreme danger of going extinct.

Still, have faith...there are some bargains to be had out there yet.

A quick inquiry at the hotel's front desk yields us about half a dozen coupons for free wine tasting here in the Paso Robles AVA.  Two are local, and we'll taste a third under different circumstances tonight.

From our hotel in Atascadero, it's just a few miles south to Santa Margarita where the Ancient Peaks Winery's tasting room anchors the block-long downtown. A display inside has samples of the soil of their growing areas to the north and a map of each type of soil and the grapes grown on it.



Our coupon gets us tastes of everything on the list and we make up a mixed case (10% discount for non-members) of their great cabernet, Sauvignon blanc, and Blanco...a slightly sweeter dry white wine made up of a chardonnay/moscato mix...from the friendly, helpful, and down-to-earth counter staff. They also had a rose for this hot day but it was average and kind of paled a bit in comparison with the other wines.



Be sure to stop at the bakery next door for some sweets to go with that Blanco by the pool later.



Next, we go to the other side of Atascadero, to Templeton, where the rolling hills are dotted with quarter horse ranches. Here's where we'll find Wild Horse Winery. It's a name we're familiar with as we've had their readily available wines many times before.



It's a bit lonely here as we're the only customers. The friendly woman at the counter helps us out with our free tasting as I end up splurging on a really excellent chardonnay that I wasn't planning on spending that much for (but it was worth it). The other wines, such as their pinot noir and viognier, were on sale for such low price that I made up the price of the charonnay.

Later, at a concert in the park in downtown Paso Robles, we hit the wine bar where J. Lohr is selling bottles of their excellent wine for $20 a bottle, souvenir glasses included.



We enjoyed the concert with a chilled bottle of their Riesling to finish off our wine day in Paso Robles.

Cheers!


Hand Picked Special Occasion Wines delivered to your door.- Wine of The Month Club

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2017 - All Rights Reserved

Friday, November 9, 2018

A Trio of Quick Fall Trips: Number 3 - Bringing the Extended Family Along for Gold and Wine Touring-Part 1


The clock is ticking as we get our house ready to sell. We want to make at least one trip up here with our relatives to show them where we're going once we do. Maybe they'll want to join us L.A. expats.

This trip it's not only Tim, it's my mother-in-law who also uses a manual wheelchair and walker. We now have Tim, strapped in with his power chair, my mother-in-law with her walker and manual wheelchair folded up in the back, my brother-in-law, and my wife.

Our luggage is stuffed under the back seat and our other supplies and bags are stuffed in wherever they fit, here and there. It's a close-knit group in the van for the six hour drive up to Rancho Cordova, just east of Sacramento.


The five of us check into the Doubletree Suites here. Officially, it's four because that's the maximum that can be booked into any room here, including this two bedroom, two bathroom suite that has a king size bed, two queen size beds, and a queen size sofabed. For those of you doing the math at home, that's enough bed for eight people.

I'm not trying to pull a fast one on this hotel, I called beforehand to tell them I had five. They told me maximum was four. I mentioned the vast capacity of this room and told them I wouldn't mind paying the extra person charge. "If you happen to show up with five people for a four person room, what are we going to do about that? Don't worry, it'll be fine."

OK, then...we won't.

We stay at this particular property frequently. It's our go-to hotel for Sacramento and makes for a good plan B hotel in case we can't get a decent room up in the Motherlode, which is what happened this weekend.

It's a good place, gone through many names and formats...the Hallmark Suites, the Hotel Sierra, Hyatt House, and now the Doubletree Suites after an extensive year-and-a-half renovation.


We've got the huge suite, as described above (last Christmas, we had an even bigger two-level suite for the three of us but it didn't quite fit our needs this time), service is even better than last time, and...of course...we get our fill of those fabulous Doubletree chocolate chip cookies. I only wish the breakfast bar was still free.

The room fits us well...Letty and I on the king bed, Tim and his uncle Amaury each get a queen size bed to themselves in the other room, and Letty's mom takes the fold out (we offered her one of the other queens but it was too tall for her). In the middle, we can all hang out, gab, drink, and goof off while watching TV in the living room that separates the two.

The bathrooms are not technically accessible but they're plenty big enough for the two disabled people on the trip and we brought a shower chair along that fits nicely in the tub for baths.


OK, that was a long drive...but we did get to have tacos in Bakersfield along the way. We'll settle in, unpack, and rest up for the long day ahead. We get into the heart of the action tomorrow.

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Road Food - Tacos of Southern California

The Heavenly Taco Goodness of Los Tacos de Huicho

Today, we put the spotlight on one of the greatest fast foods in existence...

One real benefit to living in Southern California is all the really good, authentic ethnic food we have here.  From Chinese to Kosher delis, Japanese, Thai, and more.  One thing no one can miss is the saturating abundance of Mexican food we have around here.  For those of you who have seen our Napa Valley Part 1 video, you'll notice Tim called Los Tacos de Huicho the best tacos we've ever had...including Mexico (which is very true).  Here is my real-life scale of taco goodness, with 10 being best and 1 being worst.  Let's start at 1...

1 Tacos Puebla.  Pasadena, CA.  Bland meat.  Overcooked when it shouldn't be...undercooked when it should.  Awful tortillas that have an undercooked, doughy texture.

2 Tacos Don Chente.  El Monte, CA.  I'm gonna piss someone off with this one.  Pretty restaurant.  Clean, happy feeling place.  Good looking desserts.  I want it to be good...why can't I stand their tacos?

3 Tonny's.  Pasadena, CA.  Many people love this place.  It's just average to me.

4 Jack in the Box.  Nationwide.  They must put crack in those two-for-99cent tacos.  I don't know why we like them...but we do.

5 Taco King (not to be confused with #6).  Azusa, CA.  Another decent taco stand in the city.  Good, but just above average.


6 King Taco (not to be confused with #5).  Locations across the Los Angeles region.  The best taco chain.  Great carne asada, good al pastor, decent carnitas, and lame roasted chicken.  Their red sauce will make your lips feel like they're falling off.

7 Rudy's. Monrovia, CA. A sit down, full service restaurant. Most food it better than average but Rudy now has a large taco de tripas on the menu that's out of this world good.


8 Pepe's.  Alhambra, CA.  Nobody makes a hard-shell taco like Pepe's.  Just dripping with juicy goodness and layered with cheese, throw a dollop of their great sauce on and enjoy.


9 El Picoso.  Azusa, CA. (Similarly, almost related, is El Picosito in Duarte, CA) Tacos de papa.  I've tried many places and pretty much choke on these potato tacos.  Not here.  Delicious, fried pockets of tortilla filled with just the right amount of potato.  Also, pretty much the best tripas south of Bakersfield plus good enchiladas and rellenos make this place stand out.  Note:  Many of their best dishes...such as the tacos de papa...are not on the menu.  You just have to know they make them.


10 Los Tacos de Huicho.  Bakersfield, CA.  How to they do it?  I've been here dozens of times and it's always delicious.  Have worked my way about half-way through their menu and have yet to find anything that is not absolutely delicious.  Although everything is top-notch here, their specialty is al pastor.  One of the few places left that do it right, roasted on a vertical spit just oozing with juice.  Tripas...I realize some of you are put off of this offal meat...are crispy, tasty little critters in their delicious fried tortillas.  The creamy, bean and meat goodness of their sopes rest on a just crispy enough shell.  The fish tacos are fresh and will blow those of you who like Rubio's away.  They even make some of the best french fries we've ever had.  The salsa bar holds their perfect red and green salsas, plus the holy grail of salsadom...their spicy, creamy, guacamoloe salsa (see picture above).  The price of a taco here is only 99cents...everyday!  The only down side is their bar, which makes some pretty lackluster margaritas.



Darryl

Monday, November 5, 2018

A Trio of Quick Fall Trips...Number 2 - Catalina Island (Part 2)


For Catalina standards, it's a large room. Still, it can feel a bit crowded with Tim's rollaway bed taking up the extra space between our bed and the two easy chairs next to the patio door.

We sleep good, though, the beds are comfortable. There's no noisy air conditioner and the hallways in this part of the first floor are far removed from the street.

I get Tim up, he takes a shower, and we get ready to greet the day.

Watch the Video!



First up, we walk over to the nearby pier. I want to show Tim the spot where I proposed to his mom. 34 years ago, when I brought Letty over here with the idea to ask her to marry me, there were a series of wooden benches. A severe New Year's Eve storm a few years ago cause a lot of damage along the waterfront and those benches are long gone.



Benches set into concrete walls have replaced them so I do my best to find the exact spot and show Tim where that bit of family history occurred...just south of the old pier by the drinking fountain now guarded by thirsty seagulls.

Letty wants to see what's on the street a block up from the main drag here. We walk up and, to tell the truth, there's not much other that a large Von's supermarket under construction and a tiny miniature golf course. 

It's handy, though, because the ticket counter of the mini golf course doubles as a ticket window for various island activities. We're a bit limited on what tours we can take because most of them take place on non-accessible boats but Tim has said one thing he really wants to do is take a tour of the Casino.

There are two flavors of tours...the discovery and the behind the scenes...one of which is accessible and one which is not. We sign up for the 11:45am discovery tour and set off to do a little souvenir shopping in the meantime.



About 11:30, we wander over to the building. The Casino is Catalina's iconic building...the largest one in town. It's not now, nor has ever been, a gambling palace. Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, who owned the island, used the Italian meaning of the word..."gathering place"...in naming the structure.



We're ushered in to the lobby where millions of dollars worth of brown mahogany line the walls. Gold leaf stars line the stucco ceiling. Out on the portico, sealife murals line the walls. They were supposed to be made out of the famous Catalina tile but time was short. They were painted on and only the mermaid above the ticket booth ended up being tiled.



The bottom floor is a movie theater. Still in use to this day, it is one of two of the original theaters built specifically to show films with sound back in 1929.

The domed room has great acoustics. The Radio City Music Hall studied its design before being built.

Twinkling lights blink in the ceiling, giving it a starry night effect until the lights come up. A glorified California history in art adorns the walls.




Upstairs is a giant ballroom. Originally 15,000 square feet, tabled terraces were installed taking the dance floor down to 10,000 square feet.

An early version of a disco ball spins above while we mill about the huge space where dancers would sway to the likes of Kay Kaiser, Bob Crosby and Dick Jurgens.



We move outside where a promenade wraps around the upper level giving us incredible views of Avalon.



Wrigley had baseball-stadium ramps installed to be able to get the masses people in and out quickly to the ballroom. Today, these ramps are useful to get the wheelchair up and down from that floor.

Afterward, we spend some more time shopping and exploring the pier. Fish food is available from vendors here and you can feel the calico bass and garibaldi fish (California's state fish) off the end of the pier.



Now, it's time to collect our bags from the hotel. We have a last meal of the special pub burgers at El Galleon before we get back on the Catalina Flyer for the voyage back to Newport Bay.

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Sunday, November 4, 2018

THE COCKTAIL HOUR: Island Margaritas on a Budget, a Catalina Happy Hour Pub Crawl


We've got an afternoon to kill here in Avalon. Tomorrow, we'll do a little more on the active side here on Catalina Island. Today, we'll explore the bars and pubs along Crescent Avenue, the main waterfront thoroughfare of the city.


Watch the Video!




Avalon is not a big place, in fact you can walk from end to end in a matter of minutes. That's what we're going to do. We've had a good lunch at Antonio's Pizza and Cabaret. Now, we're headed beyond the Casino.



34 years ago, when I brought Letty over here to propose, we spent the afternoon having drinks and snorkeling off the shore at Descanso Beach Club, one of the very few (if not the only) private beaches in California. It seems like a good place to start off at.



Well, it seemed good but we waited awhile. Server after server walked by our table without so much as a "Hi" or "I'll be right with you." Enough, we get up and start leaving when a young woman server comes up and says "what'll you have?"

"Nothing...we give up. We've been here 15 minutes waiting for you to take our order."

"But I'm here now," she protests.

"Sorry, too late," I tell her. "We've got better things to do with our limited time."


With the club behind us, it's back to Crescent Avenue. Happy hours start as early as 11am here but it's a bit later than that now.  At the other end of town, just up Clarissa Avenue a couple of doors, is Mi Casita. You probably won't be surprised that it's a Mexican restaurant.



$7.50 is their happy hour price for a large house margarita or you can choose a flavor. Just for kicks, I get a pineapple margarita on the rocks.  It's decent but on the sweet side.

Tim one ups me there by getting their very large dulce de leche ice cream sundae for his happy hour snack.



Around the corner, facing the sea, is El Galleon which is owned by Antonio's, where we had lunch. 

It's also $7.50 for their house margarita, served in a highball glass. It's a bit on the weak side but better when I add another shot to it.



I find that they have an outstanding Cadillac margarita, though, at only $2 more. Larger, tastier, and stronger...it's a darn good version of this drink.

Our last stop is the Catalina Cantina, a few doors north of El Galleon. This is the cheapest happy hour margarita on Catalina at only $4 and...you know what?...it's also the best. 



Very tasty and strong (but I asked the server to make it that way). Letty topped off the day with a glass of chardonnay. Nice place, great prices, and some friendly people hanging out here as well.

That was our afternoon of seeking out cheap libations on the island. It's a good way to make your cash go a long way on this expensive rock in the ocean.

Cheers!

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved

Friday, November 2, 2018

A Trio of Quick Fall Trips...Number 2 - Catalina Island (Part 1)


I'm wondering what possessed me to commit to this...driving at 6 in the morning across the 605 and 405 to try to get to Newport Beach on this cloudy morning. I need a parking spot for 36 hours, the only lot around here that will let me stay this long is the lot next to Balboa Pier.

Navigating the Byzantine parking payment system is a true hassle. The sign says parking is limited to 7 days. No problem, I only need a day and a half, but the machine is limiting me to one day. That's a problem because in 24 hours, I'll be 30 miles across the ocean and unable to come back and renew it.

I go to add time by hours...it'll only let me add 10 hours which is cutting it 2 hours too short. I snap a pic of the sign on the machine which has a website for the parking company. Maybe I can extend it online later. It's my only hope at this point...

When I retired back in March, I realized I had more time on my hands but not as much money as I was used to. I started browsing for things I could do cheaply. One thing that popped up was a Groupon deal for a half-price cruise to Catalina. I snapped it up without even thinking twice. I should have thought a little harder.

The deal was only for the boat, the Catalina Flyer, that operates out of Newport Beach. It makes one trip a day, each way. 9:00am to Catalina and 4:30pm coming back.That only gives us 3-4 hours to enjoy the island. 

I'll have to add a hotel so we can stay the night.

This will probably blow the budget since lodging in Catalina can be expensive...very expensive. And that's before you factor in that we'll need a wheelchair accessible accommodation. Summer prices are even worse so we wait until fall to cash it in (it expired November 9th) so we can get just a little break in the hotel price.

Really...what was I thinking?



Back in Newport Beach, the day of reckoning has arrived. After doing our best to figure out the parking (and crossing our fingers that our van will still be there when we get back tomorrow), we head over the short block to Balboa Pavilion, located within the iconic Newport Beach Fun Zone mini amusement park and next to the even more iconic Balboa Island Auto Ferry.

Our online reservations told us we had to arrive at 8:00am for the 9 o'clock boat. This puts us third in line, waiting an hour for the boat to start boarding. At 9, the crew takes us and two other wheelchair passengers onboard first. It's a bit tricky on the ramps and the crew insists on us putting Tim's chair in neutral so they can push, pull, and manhandle him into the boat for safety reasons.




We find a nice table by a window while the other couple of hundred passengers board...many who think the 8:00 arrival time was a mere guideline and show up at the last possible moment.

9:05 has us shoving off. The boat is much faster than the boats of yesteryear. At least twice as fast. A short hour and twenty minute later has us tied up at the dock in Avalon, Catalina's lone municipality.



We spot two giant cruise ships offshore, a Carnival ship and a Regent Cruises vessel, so it's going to be a bit crowded today. The main effect for us is having ship's photographers setting up stands directly in middle of the little sidewalk to take pictures of their passengers for souvenirs, blocking our way.

Not to gently asking them to give us room, we finally get by. It's about six blocks of walking, towing two small rolling suitcases, along the waterfront until we find our hotel.

I had to call, email, text, at least a dozen hotels in the area. Most did not have accessible rooms at all, a few had accessible rooms limited to two people, two had rooms that would accommodate the three of us. One for over $600 a night, and the Catalina Island Inn.



Our chosen hotel has a fairly roomy fireplace room with a king size bed. An extra fee for the third person includes a twin size rollaway bed for Tim. 



There's a small but very nice private patio, refrigerator, coffee maker, and a large bathroom with a very nice roll-in shower. With tax and extra bed/person fee, the room costs us $288 for the night.

Luckily for us, the room is ready when we arrive at 10:45 in the morning. Normal check-in is 3:00pm but they'll watch your luggage for you if you want to drop it off early and go exploring the island.



Being that we don't have to rush to see everything before the afternoon boat leaves, we take a little time to unpack and unwind before heading across the street to Antonio's Pizza and Cabaret perched over the water on the edge of the harbor.



We have a giant beer, some pizza, soup, and salad as we start today's activity...an island pub crawl.

Well, so far it's turning out OK, if not on budget. Let's keep rolling and see how it works out.



This is to be continued on this week's Cocktail Hour on Sunday as we compare happy hour bargain margaritas in Avalon's many pubs.

See you then!

Darryl Musick
Copyright 2018 - All Rights Reserved